Rows of supercomputer clusters in a data centre room.
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Want to know what a career in high-performance computing is like?

4 Mar 2020

A career in high-performance computing can open up a world of opportunities to be at the forefront of innovation, according to these scientists from the ICHEC.

While talent has never been more in demand in the tech industry, a major gender gap still exists in many sectors. Specifically, high-performance computing is a very male-dominated area and this stems all the way back to early education, when young girls may not be exposed to opportunities in computing, and continues through academia with a lack of female role models.

High-performance computing is essential in delivering knowledge advancement through data intelligence across many of the most important and difficult challenges of our time, from sustainability and the climate crisis to public health and security.

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The Irish Centre for High-End Computing (ICHEC) is Ireland’s high-performance computing authority, delivering advanced computer and data solutions to higher education institutions, public sector bodies and enterprises. A primary function of ICHEC is to support the third-level research community in performance and efficient coding through its expertise in code optimisation, AI, machine learning, data science and quantum technologies. spoke to five women from the ICHEC about their careers, the work they do and why more women need to join the world of high-performance computing.

Buket Benek Gursoy is a computational scientist with a PhD in applied maths and a master’s in computational science and engineering. “I was fascinated with how mathematics plays a central role in solving real-world problems in various disciplines of science,” she said.

“At ICHEC, I have been involved in multiple EU-funded projects on exciting topics. This led me to develop various technical skills and work with experts in the area around the EU.”

Jenny Hanafin is a senior geographic information systems computational scientist with a PhD in meteorology and physical oceanography. She first started using high-performance computing through a research project that she proposed to Met Éireann.

“As part of the project, I used a new remote sensing data source in Met Éireann’s weather prediction model to test if it could improve the forecast,” she said. “It was pretty exciting being able to create my own forecasts. I was also given access to one of the main European supercomputers, which was so secure I needed a new password every time I logged in.”

Four women of varying ages stand in a row smiling on a quiet Dublin street. They all work in high-end computing at the ICHEC.

From left: Jenny Hanafin, Lisa Walkin, Buket Benek Gursoy and Sita Karki. Image: Jason Clarke Photography

Sita Karki is an Earth observation computational scientist with a PhD in geosciences and a master’s degree in both geographic information science and environmental science. Her first experience with high-performance computing was through her graduate work studying geothermal anomalies in Yellowstone National Park in the US.

“My work entailed filtering out the non-geothermal noise from the thermal imagery and refine the geothermal signal. The computationally challenging nature of our research work attracted me to the high-performance computing world.”

Lisa Walkin is a research administrator at the ICHEC, who originally came from the corporate world, which she said was very different to her current role. “I liaise between the Science Council and high-performance computing team in particular, following up with scientific projects requested by users.”

Finally, Orna Fennelly is an e-health researcher with a PhD in health sciences. She originally trained as a physiotherapist and decided to pursue a PhD that evaluated a national health service initiative. This led her to working on projects that leveraged technology to augment healthcare and eventually brought her to the ICHEC.

A head-and-shoulders shot of a young woman with long brown hair. She is Orna Fennelly of the ICHEC.

Orna Fennelly. Image: ICHEC

“I am working on a health research funded project, which aims to develop the prototype technical infrastructure that would enable the secure access to and linkage of health and related datasets,” she said. “This is a very exciting project, which could see high-performance computing being used in Ireland to improve the safety, quality and efficiency of our healthcare service.”

The need for more women in high-performance computing

While there are many exciting opportunities and projects to work on within the high-performance computing industry, it lacks women, much like most other areas of tech.

Benek Gursoy said she thinks there is an unconscious bias in academia, which means female researchers are directed to more theoretical research while male researchers are pushed towards more applied topics. “It is unlikely that you will have an initial exposure to high-performance computing in theoretical research. I believe this is changing now as we see more female researchers in the area.”

Karki said there’s an issue with young girls still trying to find role models when choosing their career paths. “When there are fewer women in a field, it can put young women off choosing it as a career. Although less prevalent today, this has been a vicious cycle, as women are often expected, despite working, to continue to fulfil traditional roles,” she said.

“We can allow more women to consider these careers by breaking the tradition of portraying women in their stereotypical roles. When women in high-performance computing come forward, other women are likely to get inspired to do so also.”

‘Scientific logic is important, but creativity is also needed to facilitate the use of high-performance computing for novel projects’

Fennelly highlighted the mantra ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’, citing her own experience growing up. “When I was attending an all-girls secondary school, I was never exposed to the opportunities in computing, despite my favourite and best subjects being maths and physics,” she said.

“We need a cultural change from the ground up, which means that teachers, parents and the media need to expose young girls to high-performance computing and computing across Ireland. Those of us both male and female already working in the area also have a role in this cultural change to demonstrate to women what we are doing and to encourage them to get involved.”

What is a career in high-performance computing like?

Based on the various backgrounds these women have come from and the vastly different projects they’re working on, it’s clear that a career in high-performance can be exciting, varied and innovative.

In fact, Fennelly said it means being at the forefront of an advancing area that “can help inform decision-makers in government, healthcare and industry”.

With Hanafin’s strong science background, she said high-performance computing allows her to do research work that wasn’t possible before. “One of my recent projects was to generate a database of the waves around Ireland for the last 20 years. On a regular computer it would have taken three years, but it only took six months on the high-performance computing system.”

Karki echoed this sentiment, saying science cannot grow without the power that high-performance computing provides. “Every field of science is demanding more computational power and high-performance computing is the only solution for this,” she said.

What do you need to work in high-performance computing?

When it comes to the skills and traits you need to work in this space, Benek Gursoy said: “Being curious and technology savvy are important characteristics, as well as creativity and having scientific knowledge. As high-performance computing is a quite broad field, it is important to stay focused and keep up with the latest developments in technology.”

Karki added that science and technology can flourish when big tasks are accomplished collaboratively, so teamwork is also important. “An open mind and willingness to work in a group are the qualities that people need to have in the high-performance computing world,” she said.

Fennelly also cited the importance of working collaboratively along with the obvious technical skills and motivation. “At ICHEC, everyone works together as a team and are open to asking and answering questions and sharing their ideas, which I also think is so important in high-performance computing,” she said. “Of course, rigorous scientific logic is important, but creativity is also promoted and needed to facilitate the use of high-performance computing for novel projects.”

Finally, Walkin said anyone interested in working in high-performance computing needs to be willing to work hard and love what they do, as it can be a demanding role. “You need to be able to multitask and be able to understand and cope with the different types of problems from different domains such as administrative, scientific and technologic, simultaneously.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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